Here is a curious item in the landscape of French cinema, for the simple reason that the dialogue is in half in English, half in French. Thus half of the dialogues were subtitled for the French public, and therefore the other half will have to be subtitled for Anglo-saxon countries. (Which in turn makes me wonder what will happen in countries like Italy where subtitles are not favoured by the public and so the norm is to dub everything — but I digress).
It’s the portrait of a 17 year old Iraki refugee, Bilal, who winds up in Calais, and having got this far (4000 kilometers on foot or hitchhiking) considers it a minor detail to stow away on a truck or ferry, or steal a dinghy, and make landfall in England to be reunited with Mîna, the girl he loves.
The harsh rules of 21st century Europe and high-tech CO2 scanners brings this project to a halt and Bilal is forced to adopt a different, much riskier approach: learn to swim, and then swim the Channel.
The student shall surpass the teacher
This brings him to meet Simon, a swimming instructor, played by Vincent Lindon. This fact alone was nearly enough for me to want to skip the film, it just happened that there wasn’t much else worthwhile this week. In real life, (or rather TV talkshows, which I admit is not quite the same thing) the man comes across as being thoroughly full of himself, if not in fact a complete asshole (in an Alain Delon kind of way). So I was very impressed by his role, and he unexpectedly earnt a considerable amount of respect in my eyes for his performance.
The story doesn’t end well, and how could it? Nevertheless Lioret’s narrative avoids slipping into tear-jerking melodrama, and one comes away with the feeling of having seen a very beautiful film.
What was most surprising was to discover the film splashed over the weekend papers, with the French minister of Immigration, Eric Besson launching a vitriolic attack on the film and its director, talking of the caricatural depiction of the police and drawing ill-considered parallels between the plight of the refugees in Calais with that of the holocaust victims of the second world war…
Besson can truthfully state that very few people have wound up in prison for having given aid to refugees, nonetheless, the non-stated policy is to scare people from entertaining the idea. Which is how it came to pass that the coppers pounded on a door at some god-forsaken hour of the morning to drag a woman down to the station for questioning, where she was detained for forty eight hours (count the seconds, it’s an awfully long time) before being released without charge.
And her “crime”? She gather the mobile telephones of half a dozen refugees and charged the batteries up for them. French electricity come largely from nuclear power plants. You know, the stuff they sold us as being “too cheap to meter”. If that’s the case, then it’s not as if she was making a huge personal sacrifice.
Nevertheless, by actions such as these, the police manage to maintain a climate of fear that dissuade and dissuade the populace from entertaining the idea of aiding these people in need. Liberty, equality and brotherhood, indeed. More like a variant of the Shock Doctrine.
Lioret nails Besson in an interview, saying that it’s easy to take a phrase out of context and argue a specific point, whereas the overall evidence is incontrovertible. It’s the essence of what a politician does.
In spite of all that, Besson had the guts to admit that, all the same, c’est un beau film. And indeed it is.